2015: A Year in Review July-December

Oh dear!  Not a good start to the year!  January has whizzed by at such an incredible rate that this review may not be completed before midnight strikes and February arrives.
Has the month gone by more quickly because, with the exceptionally mild weather we have been having this winter and all the spring flowers in bloom weeks early, that it feels as if this review was (and should have been) written weeks earlier?

Crocus (2)   copyright

Working on the premise ‘better late than never’ here it is now.

July: As a plantsman I’m very aware that some of the most beautiful blooms can disguise the more ominous aspects of a plants nature.  Ragwort, a common weed of grassland and waste areas has cheery, bright yellow daisy-like flowers yet hides toxins that can be fatal to horses and cattle.   Control is usually carried out by hand pulling for poisoning the plant with weedkillers makes them even ore attractive to animals as they graze the dying foliage.  However, pulling the plants put humans at risk as the sap is absorbed through the skin to damage the liver.

Always remove the pulled plants from the field

In Ragwort: A Curse or a Blessing?  I looked at the controversy surrounding this plant for it has its benefits and uses too.  Should you destroy it before it destroys you?  Click here to find out.

Ragwort and horses - not a good combination

August: A different quandary was discussed in the post A Quiche or a Quad Bike?  It isn’t often that you visit a restaurant that sells quad bikes.  Or was it a quad bike showroom that sells the most delicious home-baked quiches?  Either way, there was a dilemma: which did I want to have the most?  Click here!

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August is also the perfect month for planting daffodil bulbs – also toxic, by the way, although no-one would ever suggest banishing them from our gardens.  Remembering Wordsworth’s immortal words on the subject, this post (click here) looked at how to create drifts of colour that look as if they have been growing there since the poet’s days.

Naturalised Daffodils   copyright

September: back on Exmoor, my spiritual home and, to my prejudiced mind at least, England’s most beautiful National Park for another visit.  The tiny village of Exford lies at its centre.  Exford’s church pre-dates the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the post (click here) looks at its Celtic origin.

Exford - St Mary Magdalene   copyright

October: travelling again, this time to the south of France.  Staying in the foothills of the Pyrenees it would have been easy to write about the magnificent mountain views, the gentle Blonde Aquitaine cattle or the fine dining in every wayside café.

Blonde d'Aquitaine   copyright

However, it was on the drive home that we discovered the village of Aurignac and marvelled at its silent streets and historic houses that appeared untouched by modern living.  It was only later that I discovered it was hiding an even more ancient secret – it was the place where man’s first footsteps in Europe over 40,000 years earlier took place.

Aurignac (2) copyright

Even if you’re not too interested in pre-history it is well worth clicking here to look at the photographs on the post  of this enchanting place.

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December:  It wouldn’t be Christmas without a bunch of mistletoe hanging somewhere in the house to catch visitors for the traditional kiss.  This month’s post (click here) looks at the tradition which is now spreading worldwide.  It also explains how to grow your very own mistletoe plants so that you never have to be unloved in the years to come.

Mistletoe (7)  copyright

A rather belated Happy New Year to you all!

 

 

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Ragwort – a curse or a blessing?

There is a general consensus that Ragwort (Senecio jacobea) is a noxious weed that is invading the British countryside, poisoning livestock and possibly humans alike.  Numerous articles, including some official ones, refer to it being ‘recently introduced’, ‘out of control’ or ‘increasing dramatically’.  Other sources suggest that just breathing in the plant ‘spores’* is enough to cause serious liver damage.

Ragwort

Ragwort

There is no doubt that in places ragwort is increasing just as other plants increase in number or range periodically.  There is also no doubt that it is a highly toxic plant that is capable of causing fatalities in livestock, particularly cattle and horses.  Less frequently reported are the benefits to the environment it brings for it a native plant that is host to numerous insects as well as Common Broomrape (Orobanche minor), an obligate parasitic plant that cannot complete its life cycle without it (although it is also parasitic on some other plant species too).

Cinnabar Moth Caterpillar

Cinnabar Moth Caterpillar

Plantlife, the conservation charity (link here), have produced a ‘position statement’ on ragwort control which – in my opinion at least – appears to be more balanced.  They acknowledge that livestock can be damaged and that control may be necessary in areas of high risk.  They also counterbalance the argument by stating that there is no evidence that it is proliferating.

Ladies Bedstraw - sometimes confused with ragwort should not be disturbed

Ladies Bedstraw – sometimes confused with ragwort should not be disturbed

The alkaloids in ragwort are harmless whilst they remain in the plant but become toxic once ingested.  It takes considerable amounts to cause catastrophic liver failure and this is usually caused by feeding contaminated hay over long periods of time.  To have a horse die from ragwort poisoning is extremely distressing both for the horse and its owner and as symptoms don’t show until cure is too late precautions do need to be taken.  Reaction caused by casual contact is usually dermatitis, and relatively rare.

Ragwort and horses - not a good combination

Ragwort and horses – not a good combination

Ragwort is more prevalent where disturbed soil conditions exist and the churning of ground by hooves create perfect conditions for seed to germinate. Although animals don’t select fresh ragwort in preference to other species they will eat it if other food is scarce such as in times of drought or through overstocking.

Ragwort growing beside path made by horses

Ragwort growing beside path made by horses

So should ragwort be controlled or not?  The answer, as with most things in life, is yes but in moderation. It is quite unnecessary to remove ragwort plants from areas of low or no risk as is sometimes thought. I keep horses and spend time each year removing ragwort from the fields in which they graze. The best way is to pull the plant out by hand rather than to use chemicals which create other issues. It is generally believed that the toxins can be absorbed through the skin so it is advisable to wear gloves to prevent this.

Always remove the pulled plants from the field

Always remove the pulled plants from the field

The tall flowering stems of ragwort with their attractive head of yellow daisy-like flowers are easy enough to see and remove. Less obvious are the non-flowering plants – these have a rosette of leaves hugging the ground. It is essential that the pulled plants are disposed of carefully, preferably by burning, as seeds can form on dying plants. It is also essential that the plants are identified properly and that other species are not removed. It should also be remembered that it is illegal to disturb or remove any wild plant that is not growing on land you own or have responsibility for.

Ragwort flowers

Ragwort flowers

Ground hugging leaf rosette of immature plant

Ground hugging leaf rosette of immature plant

*Ragwort is a seeding plant and does not produce spores. This is just one way how misinformation can cause confusion and unnecessary health concerns